Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins "At a Glance." Country-specific updates follow.{{authorBox.message}}

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Africa File: Political crises rock Chad and Somalia; Islamic State insurgency robs Mozambique of billions 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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Political crises in Chad and Somalia risk expanding into larger conflicts while lifting pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in several African regions. Longtime Chadian President Idris Deby was killed amid fighting with rebel groups. The Chadian military has moved to take control of the country, including cracking down on protests against military rule. Chad is a base for Western counterterrorism forces and a regional troop contributor whose domestic instability will disrupt operations against Salafi-jihad groups in Mali and the Lake Chad Basin.

Unrest has also seized Somalia’s capital following the president’s attempt to extend his term by two years. The country’s security forces are fragmenting, and rival factions have staked out positions in the capital. Former allies pressured the president to abandon the term extension on April 27, possibly averting an immediate conflict, but Somalia’s political crisis will not be easily resolved. Meanwhile, al Shabaab—al Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate—has already exploited the crisis to bolster its positions in the Somali countryside.

Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are already exacting a steep cost in Africa in both lives and dollars. The French company Total suspended a multibillion-dollar investment in Mozambique this week due to an Islamic State–linked insurgency in the country’s north. The loss of the project—the largest source of private investment in Africa—is a devastating blow to Mozambique’s pursuit of economic growth. As CTP Research Manager Emily Estelle recently argued in Foreign Policy, “Africa’s rise to prosperity could be the defining story of the coming decades. But that won’t happen if hundreds of thousands lives under Salafi-jihadi dominance, with huge swathes of terrain becoming permanent terrorist havens, and millions displaced by violence.”

In this Africa File:

  • Lake Chad. Domestic instability is disrupting Chadian involvement in regional counterterrorism efforts. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province is escalating sophisticated attacks on security forces in Nigeria.
  • Sahel. An Al Qaeda–linked group is intensifying its efforts to control populations in central Mali by clashing with rival armed groups.
  • Somalia. Somalia’s president backed away from an attempted power grab as rival factions grapple for control of Mogadishu, leaving al Shabaab to fill security vacuums outside the capital.
  • Mozambique. A multibillion-dollar natural gas project was suspended in northern Mozambique following escalating attacks by an Islamic State–linked group.
  • Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s June elections are a flashpoint for insecurity that threatens the country’s cohesion.
  • Tunisia. The murderer of a French policewoman may have been in contact with a Tunisia-based Salafi-jihadi group.

Latest publications:

  • Africa. Emily Estelle writes in Foreign Policy that Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in African countries get short shrift in Western policy circles. She argues that, as Salafi-jihadi groups notch success after success in Africa, political and policy challenges are preventing policymakers from seeing the threat clearly. But the spread of Salafi-jihadi insurgencies undercuts other US policy goals in Africa and, most importantly, robs millions of Africans of future prosperity and peace. Read the piece here.
  • Chad. Rahma Bayrakdar assessed the implications of Chad’s domestic instability for the Salafi-jihadi movement in West Africa. Read the warning update here.

Read Further On:

West Africa

East Africa

North Africa

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: April 2021

View full image.

Source: Emily Estelle.


Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated April 27, 2021

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across northern, eastern, and western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent. This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism efforts rely on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively.

West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger. Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel.

The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region.

New instability in Chad, whose security forces are engaged in counterterrorism efforts in Mali and the Lake Chad basin, may lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in both theaters.

East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swathes of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals, where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government (SFG)—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction, corruption, and now open conflict in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.

Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.

The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. The insurgency caused the French company Total to shutter a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in northern Mozambique that was the continent’s largest private investment. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique also marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.

North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The Islamic State’s rise brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years.

The insurgencies in Libya and the Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface.

West Africa

Lake Chad

Domestic instability is disrupting Chadian involvement in regional counterterrorism efforts, benefiting Salafi-jihadi groups that are already on the offensive in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. Chad faces an unpredictable political and security crisis. The country’s longtime president, Idris Deby, died on April 20 from wounds sustained during clashes with rebel groups north of the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, on April 19. A council of military officers established a transitional government and named President Deby’s son, Mahamat Kaka, interim president on April 20 in violation of the country’s constitution. Chadian opposition parties *denounced the coup.

Chad’s military leaders named Albert Pahimi Padacke, a former prime minister and Deby ally, as prime minister of the transitional government on April 26 over the objections of opposition leaders. Chadian security forces have killed at least two civilians protesting against the military takeover  as of April 27. 

The withdrawal of Chadian forces, which are the most effective Sahelian force participating in regional counterterrorism efforts, will lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in the Lake Chad and Sahel regions. Events in Chad may already be drawing Chadian forces away from the UN counterterrorism mission in Mali; 1,200 Chadian soldiers joined MINUSMA in March but are now *preparing to return home. Chad is one of the top troop contributors to MINUSMA with a contribution of nearly 1,500[1] soldiers before the March deployment. (See Figure 2.)

Internal unrest also threatens Chad’s border security and may benefit the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) and Boko Haram, both of which are active on the Chad-Nigeria border. The Chadian presence along its Lake Chad border since 2015 has prevented sustained incursions by ISWA or Boko Haram, but a domestic crisis that draws forces away from this region could allow Salafi-jihadi militants to secure a foothold on Chadian terrain. ISWA claimed an attack that killed 12 Chadian soldiers in western Chad’s Lac province near the Nigerian border on April 26, 60 miles north of Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. ISWA will likely conduct future attacks in this area given its ability to retreat to its base across the border in Nigeria. The Chadian army may not be able to repel future ISWA border attacks if soldiers are relocated to protect N’Djamena. Read more about how the crisis in Chad threatens West Africa counterterrorism efforts here.

Figure 2. Top 10 Troop Contributors to MINUSMA

Source: UN Nations Peacekeeping, “MINUSMA Fact Sheet,” February 2021, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/minusma.

ISWA is expanding its area of operations in northeastern Nigeria. ISWA militants attacked a Nigerian military base and killed over 30 Nigerian soldiers in Mainok in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on April 25.[2] The militants entered Mainok in military camouflage and mine-resistant vehicles. The militants set fire to part of the town before retreating due to Nigerian airstrikes.

ISWA militants have been attacking regularly in the area between the Nigeria-Niger border and the Borno regional capital Maiduguri since December 2020. Targeting Mainok, which is located roughly 30 miles west of Maiduguri, may indicate the group’s plans to surround and isolate the city. ISWA’s use of military vehicles paired with its increasing use of explosive capabilities, such as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, indicates that the group will continue to inflict high casualties on Nigerian security forces even at fortified bases.

Sahel

An al Qaeda–linked group is intensifying its efforts to control populations in central Mali by clashing with rival armed groups. Members of the pastoralist Fulani and the agriculturalist Dogon ethnic groups compete for access to land and water in central Mali. Violence between the Fulani and Dogon has escalated since 2015, when Salafi-jihadi groups, most notably al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), began attacking the Dogon and fueling a cycle of retaliatory attacks. Salafi-jihadi militants have stoked the Fulani-Dogon clashes while presenting themselves as a potential security guarantor. JNIM has exploited local violence to gain access to communities by promising protection and allying with vulnerable Fulani populations.

JNIM has recently intensified its efforts to cement its position in central Mali through a combination of military pressure and negotiations. A majority-Fulani JNIM subgroup, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), is attempting to impose its will on Djenne and the surrounding areas in Mopti region by force. MLF militants have been gathering rice from villagers in Djenne as part of the zakat (religious tax). Dozo hunters seized a portion of the rice in mid-February.

Dozo are traditional hunters in central and southern Mali and the surrounding regions whose ranks include Dogons and members of other ethnic groups. The MLF has since *clashed with Dozo hunters in Djenne. MLF militants killed seven Dozos in their most recent attack in Djenne and burned part of the town on April 21. The MLF has also targeted nearby villages after civilians *fled the fighting in Djenne. The MLF’s involvement in Djenne *disrupted an inter-community peace agreement from August 2019.

The MLF is also facing resistance in Niono, 128 miles west of Djenne in Segou Region. The leader of the powerful ethnic Dogon militia group Dan Na Ambassagou announced on April 5 that he and his men will not abide by a March 14 peace agreement between MLF and a Dogon militia in Niono and vowed to continue fighting JNIM. Da Na Ambassagou, which operates throughout central Mali, has been clashing with the MLF since. MLF militants attacked a Da Na Ambassagou position in Mopti Region’s Bandiagara on April 23–24. (See Figure 3.)

 Figure 3. April 2021 MLF Activity in Central Mali: Key Locations

Source: Authors.

Salafi-jihadi militants kidnapped and killed foreign journalists and a wildlife expert in eastern Burkina Faso. Unidentified militants kidnapped at least two Spanish journalists and an Irish wildlife advocate who were filming a documentary in a national park bordering Benin on April 26. Burkinabe authorities found the journalists’ bodies the next day. JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) both operate in eastern Burkina Faso and have kidnapped foreigners in the Sahel region. The Associated Press reported on an alleged JNIM audio recording claiming the attack, but neither JNIM nor ISGS have released photos or videos of the incident at time of writing.

East Africa

Somalia

Political and security trends in Somalia are lifting pressure from al Qaeda’s East African affiliate al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has demonstrated an intent to conduct external attacks, including a 9/11-style attack on the US. Security trends in Somalia favor the group as the US troop withdrawal and drawdown of Ethiopian forces contributing to counterterrorism efforts in Somalia will reduce pressure on al Shabaab. A political and security crisis is now rocking Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, following the president’s attempt to extend his term until 2023.

Somalia’s president backed away from an attempted power grab as rival factions grapple for control of Mogadishu. SFG President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” abandoned an attempt to extend his term by two years on April 27. The SFG had failed to hold elections amid political deadlock with the leaders of federal member states. President Farmajo’s term expired in February.

Farmajo’s support base deteriorated rapidly in the past week, with senior political and security leaders—including the prime minister and other former allies—turning against his attempt to hold onto power. Somalia’s armed forces have fragmented during the political crisis, with soldiers fighting for anti-Farmajo clan leaders taking control of strategic parts of the city. Rival forces clashed in Mogadishu on April 25. The hostilities included *clashes between Turkish-trained SFG units and hundreds of Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers that defected from their positions in Middle Shabelle region to oppose Farmajo in Mogadishu. Fear of a larger conflict has driven some civilians to flee the city.

Al Shabaab has sought to capitalize on the political turmoil by targeting police and government officials in Mogadishu. Somalia’s police commissioner fired Mogadishu’s police chief on April 11 for attempting to prevent the parliamentary vote to extend Farmajo’s term. Al Shabaab has been attempting to inflame existing security sector tensions by escalating attacks on strained police forces. Al Shabaab *claimed to attack at least two police stations in Mogadishu’s Mohamud Harbi and Bar Ubah neighborhoods on April 14. Suspected al Shabaab militants *killed a Wardhigley district official on April 16, the same day SNA troops clashed with security forces loyal to the fired police chief.

Al Shabaab seized a town after security forces left for Mogadishu. SNA forces withdrew from Ba’adweyne town in central Somalia’s Mudug region on April 14 to *focus on political tensions in the capital. Al Shabaab seized the town on April 15, filling the security vacuum, and may seek to *seize other towns in the area.

Mozambique

French company Total indefinitely suspended its operations in northern Mozambique due to the deteriorating security situation. Total declared force majeure and confirmed the withdrawal of all its personnel from the Afungi peninsula site on April 26. Islamic State–linked militants overran a coastal town near the Total site in northern Mozambique in late March. The Total project is the largest private investment in Africa and was meant to drive Mozambique’s economic growth in the coming decades. The International Monetary Fund had projected 38 percent economic growth for Mozambique in 2021 in a 2016 forecast but has now revised its forecast down to just 2.1 percent to account for the disruption of natural gas plans and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s June elections are a flashpoint for insecurity that threatens the country’s cohesion. The Ethiopian federal government delayed planned elections from August 2020 to June 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The election delay was a catalyst for the current conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

The elections are also raising political tensions between the federal government and other regional states. Political parties in Somali regional state suspended election activities in mid-April, joining Oromia regional state parties that had already announced boycotts. A failure to hold elections in Oromia would delegitimize Abiy’s administration and heighten existing tensions among Oromo groups, the federal government, and neighboring states. The elections are also a source of tension among regional states, as evidenced by a dispute between Somali and Afar regional state officials over *polling *station sites.

Eritrea admitted to its military presence in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region for the first time. Eritrea’s information minister acknowledged on April 16 that Eritrean forces are present in Ethiopia, saying that Eritrea and Ethiopia have agreed that Eritrean forces will withdraw. The minister’s statement is likely a reaction to an April 15 statement by a UN official noting that Eritrean troops, which have been accused of human rights abuses, have not yet left Tigray despite international pressure and a promise by the Ethiopian prime minister. Eritrean forces have been present in Tigray at least since November 2020 to support Ethiopian federal forces against the TPLF.

North Africa

 Tunisia

The murderer of a French policewoman may have been in contact with a Tunisia-based Salafi-jihadi group. A Tunisian man living in France, Jamal Qarshan, stabbed and killed a French policewoman near Paris on April 23. A French officer shot and killed Qarshan at the scene. Qarshan *called a suspected Salafi-jihadi group member living in Sousse in northeastern Tunisia before the attack. Tunisian authorities arrested the contact and are investigating his relation to Qarshan.

French authorities are looking through Qarshan’s *phone and computer to determine whether he received outside help. French authorities claim that Qarshan likely self-radicalized and found Salafi-jihadi propaganda on his phone. Qarshan had watched Salafi-jihadi propaganda shortly before the attack. Qarshan’s relatives claimed he was depressed and seeing a psychiatrist in Paris.

Counterterrorism pressure in Tunisia and neighboring Libya has reduced Salafi-jihadi activity in Tunisia in recent years. Militants linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State retain a haven in a mountainous region in western Tunisia bordering Algeria, where they conduct regular defensive attacks targeting security patrols. Covert Salafi-jihadi networks remain active in Tunisia’s more populated coastal regions. Three Islamic State militants killed a Tunisian National Guard officer and wounded another in Sousse on September 6, 2020.


[1] UN Nations Peacekeeping, “Troop and Police Contributors,” February 28, 2021, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims 14 Deaths in Attack on Nigerian Military Post in Mainok, Capturing Multiple Vehicles and Weapons,” April 27, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

Africa File: Islamic State withdraws from northern Mozambique town, but challenges remain

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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An Islamic State affiliate relinquished control of Palma in northern Mozambique after inflicting dozens of casualties, displacing thousands, and looting money and supplies. While Mozambican security forces have returned to Palma, they lack the capability to secure the area or recapture significant terrain from the militants, who have held another coastal town since August 2020. The Palma attack marks a step change for the Mozambique insurgency but it is not an anomaly for Sub-Saharan Africa, where Salafi-jihadi groups are on the offensive in multiple countries.

In this Africa File:

  • Mozambique. Islamic State–linked militants withdrew from Palma in Mozambique’s far north after more than a week, but subsequent attacks are likely. Mozambique’s military faces several challenges that will prevent it from recapturing significant terrain.
  • Somalia. Al Shabaab is attacking bases in areas surrounding Somalia’s capital to increase its freedom of movement on key roads. Somalia’s political crisis is ongoing and unlikely to end following a controversial two-year extension of the president’s mandate.
  • Ethiopia. Fighting is ongoing in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region and Eritrean troops remain present. Tensions are high between Ethiopia and both Sudan and Egypt.
  • Libya. The Libyan National Army commander and his external backers launched an effort to gain popular support before Libyan elections in December 2021.
  • Sahel. Al Qaeda’s Mali affiliate attempted a large attack on a UN base in northern Mali. A peace agreement between Salafi-jihadi militants and ethnic-based militias may be breaking down in central Mali.
  • Lake Chad. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province is attacking aid workers to seize resources while sustaining operations on multiple fronts.

Latest publications:

  • Mozambique. Emily Estelle discussed the Islamic State in Mozambique on BBC World News. Watch here, or listen to a recent radio interview here. Estelle and Jessica Trisko Darden recently published a report on Mozambique, including a forecast and recommended policy response. Read the report here, and view the interactive graphic here.

Read Further On:

East Africa

North Africa

West Africa

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: April 2021

Source: Emily Estelle.

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]


Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated April 1, 2021

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across northern, eastern, and western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent. This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism efforts rely on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively.

West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger. Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel.

The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region.

East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swathes of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals, where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government (SFG)—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction and corruption in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.

Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.

The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania, where its affiliate seized a second Mozambican port in March 2021. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.

North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The Islamic State’s rise brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years. The insurgencies in Libya and the Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface.

East Africa

Mozambique

The Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M)[i] temporarily withdrew from Palma but retains a position of strength in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. IS-M overran Palma from March 24 to April 2, displacing more than 14,500 people from the town and tens of thousands more in Palma district. This civilian displacement adds to the more than 700,000 people already displaced from Cabo Delgado province due to fighting since 2017. Militants killed at least 87 people, including about a dozen foreigners, during the Palma attack, and approximately 20,000 people remain missing. The attack also disrupted a multibillion-dollar offshore liquified natural gas project run by the French company Total.

Mozambican security forces launched a failed operation to recapture Palma on March 28. They then claimed to regain control of Palma on April 4, after militants withdrew from the city to the surrounding bush. Total’s contractors accused Mozambican police and soldiers of looting facilities in Palma following the militants’ withdrawal.

Mozambique’s military is ill prepared to counter IS-M. The Mozambican security forces’ vulnerabilities include a lack of weapons training. A disruption in air support will also hinder operations in northern Mozambique. A contract between  Mozambique’s interior ministry  and South African private military contractor Dyck’s Advisory Group (DAG) expired on April 6. DAG provided air support to Mozambican forces and worked to evacuate civilians during the Palma attack. Mozambique now *plans to provide its own air support through Mozambican pilots trained to fly helicopters by South African defense contractor Paramount, through a contract with Mozambique’s defense ministry.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), an intergovernmental block of South African countries, *met in Mozambique’s capital from April 8 to 9 to discuss the Cabo Delgado crisis. Zimbabwe’s president said the group agreed to mobilize a SADC brigade to intervene in the conflict. The Mozambican government has not confirmed this discussion, however, and Mozambique’s president said on April 8 that Mozambique will not accept foreign support on certain issues over fears of compromising Mozambique’s sovereignty. The SADC agreed to meet again on April 29.

Forecast: IS-M militants will likely exploit DAG’s absence by targeting Mueda, a town housing the Mozambican military’s main base in Cabo Delgado province. DAG forces targeted militants between Mueda and Namacande in November 2020. IS-M has not yet attacked Mueda, but it ambushed a military vehicle traveling from Nangade town to Mueda in early March and attacked army posts near Mueda in mid-March. (As of April 14, 2021.)

Somalia

Al Shabaab is attacking bases in the Lower Shabelle region to increase its freedom of movement on the roads toward Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. Al Shabaab targets the SFG in Mogadishu in an ongoing campaign to weaken and destabilize the SFG, which faces an ongoing political crisis after failing to hold federal presidential elections in February.

Al Shabaab conducted complex attacks in the Lower Shabelle region’s Barire and Awdheegle towns in early April. The towns have bridges that provide access into Mogadishu and host Somali National Army (SNA) bases whose missions include preventing al Shabaab from crossing into Mogadishu with explosive-laden vehicles. Al Shabaab detonated suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs) at the SNA bases in Barire and Awdheegle on April 3. Militants then clashed with troops at Barire before the SNA regained control of the base. Al Shabaab prevented reinforcements from arriving at the bases by targeting soldiers with a SVBIED near Lafole, about 22 miles east of Barire, the day of the attack. Al Shabaab circulated photos of the damage and casualties it caused at Barire on April 5.[ii]

Al Shabaab previously controlled Barire and nearby villages. Militants damaged Barire’s bridge in September 2017. It remained unrepaired at least until June 2019. African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and SNA forces *recaptured Barire from al Shabaab in April 2019. Security forces have clashed with al Shabaab in the area since.

The controversial extension of the Somali president’s term is unlikely to end the country’s political crisis. The SFG failed to hold federal presidential elections in early February and has been *unable to organize elections since. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” signed a law on April 13 that extends his presidential mandate for two years. This comes after Somalia’s Lower House of Parliament voted on April 12 to hold direct federal presidential elections in 2023. Somalia’s Upper House of Parliament deemed the vote unconstitutional. The vote has already caused tension among security personnel. Mogadishu’s police chief attempted to unilaterally suspend Parliament to prevent the vote but the country’s police commissioner relieved him of duty.

Ethiopia

Fighting in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region is concentrated north of the regional capital Mekelle. Ethiopian federal forces claimed victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020 when they seized Mekelle. Fighting has continued since, however. Eritrean forces have continued deploying to Tigray to support fighting the TPLF. Eritrea’s continued involvement in Tigray contradicts Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s promise in late March that Eritrean forces would withdraw from the region. Limited reporting indicates that Eritrean forces most recently deployed to Tigray through Rama, an Ethiopian town along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, around April 12. This latest deployment of Eritrean forces moved northward from Rama toward Axum and Adwa towns, northwest of Mekelle.

Ethiopia simultaneously faces ongoing tensions with Sudan. Sudan and Ethiopia’s border tensions have continued since December 2020, when Sudanese forces took advantage of Ethiopia’s distraction with the Tigray conflict to seize disputed land. The tensions most recently *caused Sudan to request that the UN replace Ethiopian soldiers with soldiers from another nation to the peacekeeping mission in Sudan’s disputed Abyei territory on April 6. This occurred on the same day that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt failed to reach an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) during talks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sudan and Egypt rejected Ethiopia’s *request to share data on GERD operations on April 10 as Ethiopia unilaterally plans a second filling of the GERD this July. A possible military conflict between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over natural resources would further threaten Ethiopia’s and eastern Africa’s stability.

North Africa

Libya

Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar and his external backers launched an effort to gain popular support before Libyan elections in December 2021. Haftar may be planning to run as a presidential candidate in the UN-facilitated elections, which aim to create a unified Libyan government. Haftar *announced that the LNA’s Military Investment Authority will construct three new cities in the Benghazi area that will include roughly 20,000 housing units designated for families of “martyrs” who died fighting for the LNA. This announcement comes as Benghazi, the largest city in LNA-controlled eastern Libya, is experiencing an uptick in violence. Signs of fragmentation in the LNA, including within its leadership, indicate that Haftar’s position has become more vulnerable since the end of his attempted takeover of Tripoli in June 2020 and the formation of the new transitional government in February 2021. Haftar hosted a meeting with new armed forces officers, including heads of the LNA land, sea, and air forces, on April 5, signaling an effort to solidify his position.

Haftar is leveraging his external ties to maintain influence and gain popular support in eastern Libya. The ambitious city-building plan likely reflects support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a longtime LNA backer, though the LNA has also amassed significant resources by embedding itself into the eastern Libyan economy. Haftar also leveraged his ties with Russia and the UAE to facilitate the delivery of thousands of Russian Sputnik COVID-19 vaccines into Libya in an effort to gain popular support. Libya’s interim Government of National Unity (GNU) also announced that it *coordinated with Turkey on April 12 to bring thousands of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines into Libya. Haftar may also be trying to strengthen relations with Egypt, which has historically supported the LNA but has signaled willingness to work with the transitional government. Haftar announced publicly that he wants to give Libyan citizenship to 10 million Egyptians. Egypt will benefit from resettling millions in Libya as the country is dealing with a rapidly growing population and limited resources. Several Benghazi municipal leaders *met with an Egyptian delegation to discuss reopening a consulate in Benghazi on April 8.

West Africa

Sahel

French-backed UN forces thwarted a large-scale Salafi-jihadi attack on a UN base. Chadian peacekeepers in the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) killed at least 40 Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) members on April 2. JNIM militants attacked a MINUSMA base in Aguelhoc in northern Mali, and MINUSMA forces repelled the attack with assistance from the French Operation Barkhane. MINUSMA Chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif claimed that the soldiers killed a JNIM lieutenant Abdullah ag Albaka in the attack, however, photos indicate that the body in question is JNIM militant Abu Khaled al Tunisi, who is much younger than Albaka. JNIM militants *wore Chadian army uniforms in an attempt to obscure their identities during the attack. Aguelhoc residents *called on MINUSMA to relocate the base, fearing that it will attract another JNIM attack.

A peace agreement between JNIM and ethnic militias may be breaking down. The pastoralist Fulani and the agriculturalist Dogon ethnic groups compete for access to land and water in central Mali. Violence between the Fulani and Dogon has escalated since 2015, when Salafi-jihadi groups, most notably JNIM, began attacking the Dogon and fueling a cycle of retaliatory attacks. Salafi-jihadi militants have stoked the Fulani-Dogon clashes while presenting themselves as a potential security guarantor. JNIM has exploited local violence to gain access to local communities by promising protection and allying with vulnerable Fulani populations.

JNIM has recently intensified its efforts to cement its position in central Mali through a combination of military pressure and negotiations. A majority-Fulani JNIM subgroup, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), besieged the village of Farabougou in central Mali’s Niono region in October 2020, and the Malian Army has since *claimed to have liberated the town. Members of Mali’s High Islamic Council (HIC), an independent religious body, facilitated an oral *cease-fire agreement between Dogon militias and MLF militants on March 14. The agreement states that residents of Niono will be allowed to move freely for one month and that the MLF will release a dozen prisoners. Dogon militias will in exchange allow Salafi-jihadi militants to enter and preach in Niono villages.

The leader of the powerful Dogon militia group Dan Na Ambassagou, Youssof Toloba, claimed on April 5 that he and his men will not abide by the peace agreement and vowed to continue the fight against JNIM militants. The Dan Na Ambassagou is active throughout central Mali and may encourage Dogon militias within Niono to reject the cease-fire agreement.  Toloba’s statement builds on early signs of cracks in the cease-fire. MLF militants clashed with Dogon militias in Niono’s Dogofry village on March 15, one day after the cease-fire announcement.

Lake Chad

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) is attacking aid workers to seize resources. ISWA militants *loaded their vehicles with supplies after attacking several aid warehouses carrying relief supplies in Damasak town in Borno state on April 10. ISWA has conducted several attacks against aid workers in Borno since December 2020. The April 10 raids were part of a larger attack against a Nigerian military camp, indicating that  ISWA  entered the town with plans to target both Nigerian security forces and aid workers.

ISWA is sustaining its operations on multiple fronts. ISWA conducted attacks in Cameroon, *Niger, and Chad throughout April while continuing its primary campaign in Borno.


[i] This insurgent group goes by many names, and the group itself has not declared one. CTP refers to the group as the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M). This choice should not be taken as an overstatement of the group’s relationship to Islamic State leadership nor as a dismissal of the complications inherent in assessing a group’s ideology, composition, or affiliations. For more on naming, see page 5 in Emily Estelle and Jessica Trisko Darden, Combating the Islamic State’s Spread in Africa: Assessment and Recommendations for Mozambique, Critical

Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, February 24, 2021,  https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/combating-the-islamic-states-spread-in-africa-assessment-and-recommendations-for-mozambique.

[ii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Provides Photo Report Documenting Suicide Raid on Somali Base in Barire, Incites Fighters to ‘Redouble Jihad’,” April 5, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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Africa File: Islamic State overruns northern Mozambique port 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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An Islamic State affiliate dramatically escalated its campaign in Mozambique last week, overrunning Palma in the country’s far north. The takeover gives Salafi-jihadi militants control of a second port and has intensified the country’s already dire humanitarian crisis. The attack’s targets included foreign personnel of a nearby liquefied natural gas project.

Islamic State militants are on track to gain a permanent foothold on Africa’s eastern coastline. Mozambique’s military lacks the capability and man power to wage an effective counterinsurgency campaign in the remote region bordering Tanzania. Recently announced US and Portuguese efforts to train partner forces in Mozambique will not have a significant effect given these structural weaknesses.

Salafi-jihadi militants are also gaining ground in the Sahel region in West Africa. An Islamic State affiliate has resumed a campaign of high-profile attacks targeting civilians and security forces in Mali and western Niger. This group is poised to capitalize should political unrest destabilize Niger, which suffered a coup attempt on March 31.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s Sahel branch is expanding southward into coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic coasts. Militants can now conduct raids from bases in Burkina Faso into Côte d’Ivoire, underscoring Burkina Faso’s rapid deterioration. Burkina Faso was among the most secure countries in this region until 2017, but a Salafi-jihadi insurgency has since displaced more than one million people.

In this Africa File:

  • Mozambique. Islamic State–linked militants conducted a coordinated attack to seize a second port in northern Mozambique.
  • Somalia. Al Shabaab is seeking to expand its area of influence in southwestern Somalia. It also targeted Somali government election talks and called for attacks in Djibouti.
  • Ethiopia. Eritrean troops will remain in Tigray region despite international pressure. Tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt are rising over Ethiopia’s Nile dam.
  • Sahel. Islamic State militants resumed regular large-scale attacks on civilian targets in Niger, which also faces political unrest following an attempted coup. Al Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate is expanding into coastal West African states.
  • Libya. The Libyan National Army coalition is fragmenting in Benghazi, creating conditions that may favor the reemergence of Salafi-jihadi groups.

Latest publications:

  • Mozambique. Emily Estelle discussed the Islamic State in Mozambique on BBC World News. Watch here, or listen to a recent radio interview here. Estelle and Jessica Trisko Darden recently published a report on Mozambique, including a forecast and recommended policy response. Read the report here, and view the interactive graphic here.
  • Ethiopia. CTP is publishing updates on the Ethiopia crisis. Sign up to receive the latest updates by email here. Read Jessica Kocan’s latest update here and Emily Estelle’s background on the conflict here.

Read Further On:

East Africa

North Africa

West Africa

Figure 1. The Salafi-jihadi Movement in Africa: April 2021

Source: Emily Estelle. 


Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated April 1, 2021

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across northern, eastern, and western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent. This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism efforts rely on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively.

West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger. Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel.

The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region.

East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swathes of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government (SFG)—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction and corruption in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.

Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.

The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania, where its affiliate seized a second Mozambican port in March 2021. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.

North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The rise of the Islamic State brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years. The insurgencies in Libya and the Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface.

East Africa

Mozambique

The Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M)[i] conducted a coordinated attack to seize a second port in northern Mozambique. IS-M militants overran Palma, a port city in the far north of Cabo Delgado province near the Tanzanian border. Palma is 50 miles north of Mocimboa da Praia, a port that IS-M seized in August 2020.

The attack on Palma demonstrated a new degree of sophisticated attack planning for IS-M, likely includingpreparations throughout the rainy season in the first three months of 2021. IS-M members gradually infiltratedweapons into the city in backpacks and embedded themselves among community members by wearing military and police uniforms. The group launched the attack in Palma on March 24 with roughly 120 militants. A similarly sized reinforcement arrived the next day. The total attacking force is a large proportion of the group’s estimated 1,000 militants, indicating the attack’s importance to IS-M. The militants targeted a local police station and a military base, likely to hinder the security forces’ response and possibly to seize additional ammunition and weapons. IS-M militants based in neighboring Tanzania also crossed the border into Mozambique to support fighters on March 25. Islamic State media officially declared IS-M’s control of Palma on March 29.[ii] The use of old photos in Islamic State media indicates ongoing challenges with IS-M’s media capability.

IS-M retains control of Palma at time of publication. The Mozambican military has struggled to mount a response. Mozambican Special Forces launched an operation to recapture Palma on March 28 but failed. The head of Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private military contractor that has been involved in the counter–IS-M fight and that worked to evacuate civilians from Palma during the attack, said that Mozambican forces did not join the fight for several days.

Palma presents IS-M with several strategic benefits. Access to the sea will increase the group’s access to food, which has become limited in Cabo Delgado during the conflict. IS-M targeted food trucks during the Palma attack, beheading drivers. Palma’s location 50 miles south of the Tanzanian border may also reflect efforts to strengthen IS-M’s operations in the border region. IS-M has many Tanzanian members and conducted its first cross-border attack into Tanzania in October 2020.

The Palma attack is also a major blow to foreign investment in Mozambique’s hydrocarbon industry. French oil and gas company Total manages a logistical center about five miles from Palma to support its multibillion-dollar gas project on the Afungi peninsula. Total has evacuated about 1,000 workers since the attack, which caused dozens of foreign casualties.

The Palma attack also worsens the already severe humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique. The attack killeddozens of locals and foreigners, though the exact number of casualties remains unknown, and displaced more than 8,000. The World Food Programme is working to assist 50,000 people affected by the fighting in Palma, which was home to roughly 70,000 residents. Some residents have fled to Mueda, about 110 miles south of Palma, and others to Pemba. However, approximately 6,000 to 10,000 people were waiting to be evacuated from Palma and Afungi as of March 30. The insurgency has displaced approximately 670,000 people to date since IS-M began staging attacks in Cabo Delgado province in 2017.

Forecast: Mozambique’s military will struggle to recapture Palma as it has Mocimboa da Praia. The Palma takeover further limits Mozambican military access to Cabo Delgado province, and moving troops to the area will pose a huge logistical challenge. The Mozambican military’s small size also reduces its ability to conduct effective counterinsurgency. Clearing the city will be particularly difficult as militants hide in civilian homes. (As of April 1, 2021)

Somalia

Political and security trends in Somalia are lifting pressure from al Qaeda’s East African affiliate. The US troop withdrawal and drawdown of Ethiopian forces contributing to counterterrorism efforts in Somalia will reduce pressure on al Shabaab. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) simultaneously faces a constitutional crisis after failing to hold federal presidential elections on February 8, before the president’s mandate expired.

Al Shabaab continues to target the SFG’s electoral negotiations but is not the primary cause of the delayed agreement. The SFG failed to hold presidential elections over disagreements with Somali federal states on the electoral process. Several *political issues are disrupting negotiations between the SFG and the Jubbaland and Puntland State presidents. Al Shabaab has attempted to further delay electoral meetings by threatening security at meeting locations. The group targeted Halane base camp, the proposed meeting location between the SFG and member states in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, in early March. The group most recently *fired mortars toward Halane on March 25. The SFG *held a meeting with state representatives at Halane on March 29 despite the al Shabaab threat.

Al Shabaab is seeking control over agricultural supply routes by expanding its area of influence in southwestern Somalia. Al Shabaab *prevented commercial vehicles from entering Jowhar, the administrative capital of Middle Shabelle region, in mid-February. Al Shabaab levies taxes on businesses and vehicles operating in the city, which is nominally controlled by Somalia’s Hirshabelle State. Al Shabaab is likely attempting to control a road that links Jowhar to Mahaday town, 16 miles north of Jowhar. Mahaday is an agricultural town with multiple roads used to transport crops to surrounding villages. Al Shabaab *attempted an attack on a Somali National Army (SNA) base in Mahaday town on March 15 and claimed to capture the town. The SNA claimed to repulse the attack, but residents said al Shabaab retains control of neighboring villages. The group attacked a Burundian African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) base near Mahaday on *March 21 and *April 1.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt another advance on Mahaday town to gain control of the local trade and economy in the southern Middle Shabelle region. Al Shabaab briefly *seized Mahaday in 2016 before AMISOM forces drove the militants out of the town. (As of April 1, 2021)

Al Shabaab threatened attacks on US interests in Djibouti. Al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmad Umar, *called on Djiboutian citizens to target French and American interests in the country and to conduct lone-wolf attacks on March 27.[iii] Al Shabaab will likely be unable to conduct large-scale attacks in Djibouti, however. Al Shabaab’s activity in Djibouti has historically been limited. The group deployed two suicide bombers to a restaurant in the Djiboutian capital in May 2014. The attack targeted French soldiers, injuring several soldiers and killing one Turkish national. The group has not conducted any significant attacks in Djibouti since, likely in part due to improved security measures.

The US and France are among the countries with significant military bases in Djibouti. US Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa trains Djiboutian soldiers and most recently engaged with Djibouti’s new signal battalion for the first time during a field training exercise from March 15 to March 18.

Ethiopia

Eritrean troops will remain in Tigray. Eritrean troops have been in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region since the conflict began in November 2020. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised on March 26 that Eritrean forces would withdraw from Tigray, likely in response to pressure from the US and UN to address Eritrean troop abusesagainst civilians in Tigray.

Eritrean troops do not appear to be withdrawing from the region, however. Eritrean troops sent reinforcements into Ethiopia through a border town on March 27. Abiy and the Eritrean president reportedly agreed to integrate Eritrean forces into the Ethiopian military. If true, this agreement signals Abiy’s intent to preserve Eritrean forces’ presence in Ethiopia while obscuring it from international observers.

Tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over distribution of the Nile River’s water supply are rising. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi said on March 30 that Egypt’s share of the Nile River is “untouchable,” a warning to Abiy’s administration, which plans to begin its second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam this July. Ethiopia’s unilateral decision has caused Sudan and Egypt to call for international mediation in the ongoing dispute. A military confrontation is possible should Cairo perceive an existential threat to its water supply that cannot be resolved through negotiations. Such a conflict would draw in Sudan and destabilize eastern Africa while layering another threat to Ethiopia’s stability and cohesion.

West Africa

Sahel

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) resumed regular large-scale attacks on security and civilian targets in Mali and Niger. ISGS militants attacked villages in western Niger, killing 137 civilians, on March 21. The militants also claimed an attack that killed 22 Malian soldiers on the same day.

The recent spate of attacks indicates that ISGS has regained attack capability after a decrease in attacks in late 2020 due to clashes with rival Salafi-jihadis and pressure from counterterrorism forces. ISGS began clashing with al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) in late 2019 and fighting has continued since. JNIM expelled ISGS from Mali’s southern border in September 2020. French-led Operation Barkhane *focused its operations on ISGS throughout 2020, further weakening ISGS, before shifting its focus toward JNIM in October 2020.

ISGS responded to pressure by increasing its activity in western Niger’s Tillaberi region, where a security vacuum and ethnic tensions have allowed the group to operate for years. JNIM is not competing for a presence in Tillaberi, giving ISGS the opportunity to regroup without a threatening competitor. ISGS gained resources by collecting zakat (religious tax) and participating in cattle raiding and pillaging villages throughout western Niger.

ISGS may also benefit from growing ties to the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA), the Islamic State’s affiliate operating in Lake Chad. ISWA may have provided ISGS with reinforcements to conduct the March 21 attack in Niger. (ISGS is formally part of ISWA under the Islamic State’s organization, but ISGS and the Lake Chad ISWA branch function as separate organizations.)

ISGS is targeting civilians and security forces to deepen its presence near the Niger-Mali border. ISGS killed 58 civilians returning from a livestock market in Tillaberi on March 15. ISGS has exploited ethnic tensions to ally with several ethnic groups in Niger and established a support zone in the region. The group has been conducting attacks against civilians of the Fulani ethnic group to obtain resources. A JNIM subgroup has historically recruited from aggrieved Fulani communities and presented itself as a defender of the Fulani community. JNIM quickly deniedresponsibility for the March 21 attack and denounced the targeting of civilians. JNIM presents itself as more lenient than ISGS by eschewing large-scale attacks on civilians.

ISGS militants also ambushed Malian soldiers in southern Mali’s Tessit region on March 15, killing 33 soldiers. The group also claimed an attack on Malian soldiers in Tessit less than a week later on March 21. These attacks indicate that ISGS has established a reliable support zone in Niger from which it can repeatedly attack into Mali.

A coup attempt indicates that Niger is at-risk for a political crisis, which could destabilize the country and provide greater opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups already active there. A Nigerien military unit attempted to seize the Nigerien capital, Niamey, and the presidential palace on March 31. Nigerien security forces arrested the soldiers involved in the coup and claimed the situation is under control.

President-elect Mohamad Bazoum will be sworn into office on April 2, marking Niger’s first democratic transition of power. ISGS extended its area of operations into areas previously considered safe near  Niamey in 2020 and would likely seek to exacerbate unrest by attacking in the capital region.

Al Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate is expanding into littoral West Africa. About 60 heavily armed militants attacked an army post in northeastern Côte d’Ivoire’s Kafolo town on March 29, killing at least two Ivorian soldiers. This is the *third attack on Kafolo in less than a year. Al Qaeda–linked JNIM is likely responsible for this attack.

The militants’ ability to attack across the border and retreat into Burkina Faso underscores the high level of freedom of movement that Salafi-jihadi militants enjoy in the country’s perimeter. Burkina Faso was among the most secure countries in this region until 2017. Violence largely perpetrated by Salafi-jihadi groups has since displaced more than one million people.

Recent al Qaeda–linked attacks into Côte d’Ivoire reflect a shift in tactics and intent from prior attacks, notably a high-profile al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attack on a resort in the Ivorian capital Abidjan in March 2016. This attack targeted a location frequented by Westerners in a bid to remove Western presence from West Africa and to punish Côte d’Ivoire for contributing troops to the UN mission in Mali. JNIM’s recent cross-border attacks into Côte d’Ivoire reflect an effort to expand its support zones beyond its traditional area of operations.

The Côte d’Ivoire attack is the latest example of JNIM’s efforts to expand into West African coastal states. Beninese rangers countered a JNIM operation in northwestern Benin on March 25. The militants had entered Benin from Burkina Faso. Similarly,  Senegalese security forces *dismantled a JNIM cell near the Senegal-Mali border in January 2021.

AQIM and JNIM leaders *met in February 2020 to discuss the expansion of al Qaeda’s operations beyond Mali to establish a greater foothold in West Africa. Pro–al Qaeda media has begun to emphasize the group’s expansion, releasing a map in December 2020 and again on March 1 that indicated the group’s presence in Côte d’Ivoire compared to a prior map displaying the group only in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger months before.[iv] Access to West Africa’s Atlantic coast creates opportunities for al Qaeda and its affiliates to exploit transportation and communication lines that may aid the group in future attacks.

Forecast: JNIM will likely continue conducting sporadic, small-scale attacks in Mali’s bordering countries, including Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, to deter security forces and increase freedom of movement in border regions. (As of April 1, 2021)

North Africa

Libya

An uptick in violence in Benghazi indicates that the Libyan National Army (LNA) coalition is fragmenting. Violence is increasing in Benghazi, the largest city in LNA-controlled eastern Libya, coinciding with the installation of Libya’s new interim government, the Government of National Unity (GNU). The LNA is a militia coalition under the leadership of  Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s power has lessened since mid-2020 when his forces withdrew from western Libya after a failed attempt to unset the GNU’s predecessor.

Rising violence in Benghazi reflects conflict between factions aligned or previously controlled by the LNA to varying degrees. Factions that have supported the LNA, including tribes, are pushing back against elements of the LNA that have overstepped.

Benghazi civilians called on the LNA to investigate extrajudicial killings on March 15, including the death of Hanan Barasi from November 2020. Barasi was an activist and lawyer who openly criticized the LNA and Haftar. These calls for accountability came as tribes that had historically supported the LNA announced their support for the GNU on March 17.

Tribal leaders also called on the GNU to conduct an investigation after Benghazi police *discovered eight bodies with headshot wounds on March 18. The LNA’s Saiqa Brigade, led by Mahmoud al Werfalli, is likely responsible for these killings. Werfalli carried out similar execution-style killings against detainees in eastern Libya and was wanted by the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes, including executing prisoners of war.  

Unidentified gunmen assassinated Werfalli in Benghazi on March 24 less than a week after Benghazi police discovered the bodies. Benghazi police *arrested two suspects in connection with Werfalli’s assassination, including Hanan al Barasi’s *daughter, less than a day after the assassination, indicating that the suspects may be scapegoats.

LNA commander Khalifa Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar, may be responsible for Werfalli’s death, indicating infighting within the LNA coalition. Members of Werfalli’s tribe have accused the LNA General Command of assassinating Werfalli. The gunmen may have assassinated Werfalli to regain support from local tribal leaders and other LNA commanders who opposed Werfalli.

Inter-militia violence will likely reshape the political and security situation in eastern Libya. Werfalli commanded a loyal group of thousands of fighters that will likely escalate attacks in retaliation for his death. The Saiqa Brigade stressed its loyalty to Haftar in its statement mourning Werfalli’s death. However, the brigade may conduct retaliatory attacks against tribal leaders or other brigades that opposed Werfalli.

Werfalli’s assassination and the escalating violence in Benghazi will likely continue to fragment the LNA and its supporters, as well as eastern tribes. This fragmentation will likely cause a security vacuum because the GNU lacks the forces required to extend security to Benghazi. Militias on the ground will likely continue their operations even if the GNU attempt to de-escalate the situation on a political level.

The newly installed GNU faces other security challenges, including deteriorating security in Libya’s capital. Violence and assassinations have increased in Tripoli since the GNU took office, including clashes between several Tripoli militias that had been loosely affiliated with the GNU’s predecessor, the Government of National Accord.

The destabilization of Benghazi will create conditions for latent Salafi-jihadi networks to resume activity in the city. The LNA fought a prolonged battle to oust Al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked groups from Benghazi in 2016–17. The destabilization of Benghazi would allow Salafi-jihadi militants to emerge from their current dormant state and reestablish footholds in the seams of the renewed conflict. Salafi-jihadi groups have previously made common cause with other militias, including against the LNA, and may reprise this strategy should conflict break out in Benghazi. Militants based elsewhere in Libya, notably the southwest, may also seek to return to coastal Libya by establishing cells in the east under cover of unrest.


 [i] This insurgent group goes by many names, and the group itself has not declared one. CTP refers to the group as the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M). This choice should not be taken as an overstatement of the group’s relationship to Islamic State leadership nor as a dismissal of the complications inherent in assessing a group’s ideology, composition, or affiliations. For more on naming, see page 5 in the report, “Combating the Islamic State’s Spread in Africa: Assessment and Recommendations for Mozambique,” https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/combating-the-islamic-states-spread-in-africa-assessment-and-recommendations-for-mozambique.

[ii] “IS Formally Announces Control Over Mozambican City of Palma, Killing Over 55 Including Foreign Nationals,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 29, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] “Shabaab leader labels Djibouti ‘Center of Enemy Plots,’ Calls to Attack American and French Interests,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 27, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iv] “Pro-AQ Media Unit Follows-up on Alleged JNIM Projectile Attacks on French-EU Bases, Gives Map of Fighter Presence,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 1, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

 

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